MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — As the nation has grappled with more protests over the last year, some of which spawned riots, Florida lawmakers are considering a bill that would place stiffer penalties on people who turn violent in otherwise peaceful protests.
House Bill 1 is drawing strong opinions from lawmakers and Florida residents as it aims to increase penalties on the outliers in peaceful protests who escalate to rioting and committing crimes.
State Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, sits on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee and is among 11 members who voted to move the bill forward this week.
"This is about making sure that all Floridians are able to make their voices heard and also know their businesses, homes and communities are not going to be destroyed by violent mobs," Snyder said.
"There's a fine line between peaceful protest and the right to assembly, and violence and rioting. It’s when you cross that line that you pay a penalty and go to jail," Snyder elaborated at a committee hearing Wednesday,
Among some key points of the bill, it would:
- Enhance penalties for crimes committed during violent protests
- Create a new "mob intimidation crime" if three or more people act to incite, threaten or carry out violence
It also proposes a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot and would ban blocking roadways.
"What we saw in Portland and Seattle, where they shut down major sections of communities, that is not going to be tolerated," Snyder said.
The bill received some support from community speakers.
"This bill priorities public safety and provides protection to the innocent, and punishment to those who wish to destroy or threaten others," one Florida resident said.
Other lawmakers, like State Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, expressed support.
"Arguably, this bill enhances our first amendment right by ensuring those who wish to peacefully protest can do so without harm," Tuck said.
On the other side, dozens of community members passionately opposed the law, many saying they feel it will be discriminatory toward communities of color.
"I think HB 1 exemplifies your reliance on criminalizing your constituents instead of listening to them," one speaker said.
Six lawmakers in the subcommittee voted against moving the bill forward.
"This bill goes too far. It's reigning in the freedom of speech and expression," State Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, said.
"Law enforcement has tools in place to punish wrongdoers already," State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said.
Other lawmakers against the bill, including State Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, worry people protesting peacefully near people who turn violent could mistakenly be punished.
"If it takes a violent turn, they need to get out of there," Snyder said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis supported the idea last summer, before the U.S Capitol riots. Republican lawmakers have said the law would also increase punishments for people like those who carried out violence at the Capitol.
The law also proposes penalties for tearing down historical monuments and doxxing -- publicly publishing someone’s personal information with malicious intent.